BERLIN -- North America's Clutch Gaming clinched a spot in the next stage of the League of Legends World Championship play-ins, but it didn't come easy.
As the No. 3-seeded team from one of the five major regions in the competitive League of Legends world, the route to the main event was never supposed to be this difficult for Clutch, which qualified for the tournament by reverse-sweeping Team SoloMid in the North American regional finals. For a starting roster built through a mixture of veteran leadership and promising blue-chip talent, the play-in stage at worlds should have been a light warm-up.
Clutch Gaming were expected to feast on the domestic champions of non-major regions with their raucous, skirmish-heavy way of playing the game. Clutch's mistakes, which would come with their somewhat heavy-handed approach to the game, could be considered learning experiences against weaker opponents before the team jumped into the deep end of the pool with the world-class squads on display at the world championship.
Those mistakes did come throughout their first two days of the competition, but they were much more dire than anticipated. On Friday, Clutch needed back-to-back victories just to qualify out of their play-in group as the top seed. Although the North Americans did what was needed to get by Oceania's MAMMOTH, Russia's bombastic Unicorns of Love tripped Clutch up time and time again.
The Unicorns, dressed in bright pink attire, took both games against Clutch in the group stage. In the latter of the two victories, UoL formed a major comeback victory fueled by punishing Clutch's lack of awareness and need to always be bashing heads with the opposing team. The losses might have been jarring for a team expected to easily qualify for the main event, but a message from the top gave Clutch's players some confidence.
"Our CEO was like, 'It's 1 right now; at 1:45, you can't be mad anymore,'" Clutch support Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme said. "So some people went outside, some went to get food. When we came back in the room, we just laughed at the game -- not like nothing happened -- but we got over the tilting part of that game and focused on the next game."
With a record of 1-2 following the loss to the Unicorns of Love, the heavy favorites to make it out of the group were put in a position where a loss in their next game would be the end of the tournament. Oceania's MAMMOTH were coming off a win over Unicorns of Love on the same day and had an opportunity to make it out of the group as the surprise first-place finishers if they could beat Clutch Gaming.
It was a recipe for disaster, with a confident underdog team on a roll heading into a matchup with a seemingly vulnerable opponent that was already prone to inconsistencies.
Clutch, though, adapted, and after a strong drafting phase by the coaching staff, they executed, sidestepping the early-game pitfalls and overaggression that cost them against the Unicorns of Love.
MAMMOTH's star player, Calvin "k1ng" Truong, said that in a group with three teams of similar skill, the drafts made the difference.
"Almost every loss in our group, except for the last tiebreaker we just played [vs. Unicorns of Love], was purely off draft," k1ng said. "In our Unicorns of Love games, we hard out-drafted, and the same with Unicorns and Clutch, and Clutch beating us. Whoever won had the better draft."
In the final match of the day, Clutch got one last chance to exact some revenge on the Russian champions. The North Americans faced the Unicorns in the second tiebreaker to see which team would exit their play-in group as the top team and grant themselves an easier matchup in the upcoming best-of-five knockout round.
Once again, Clutch played to the level they were expected to perform at since their debut at the world championship, capitalizing on mistakes before turning a once-anticipated rematch into a laughable blowout. The road that took them there was the one Clutch (and the crowd) didn't expect, but in the end, the North Americans exited their group as the victor.
This has been the first world championship appearance for Vulcan, mid laner Tanner "Damonte" Damonte and jungler Nam "Lira" Tae-yoo, and that might have led to some Day 1 nerves and the shaky performances. But that inexperience also plays into Clutch's hand, Vulcan said. He thinks his team can "cause some trouble" in the main event.
"I think we have really high potential because we're a really young team," the support said. "We can only get better, and I think there is more room for us to get better than some other teams."
Clutch Gaming's playstyle feels like a coin flip. They'll either smash their opponent, big or small, and snowball an early advantage through raw technical talent, or, like in the games they lost to the Unicorns of Love, they'll dive too deep, play too predictably and be swept aside like a non-contender.
On any given day in any given game of a series, Clutch's gambles could pay off or break them.
For the first week of the world championship, luckily for Clutch, the coin landed on the correct side more times than not.
Next week? Your guess is as good as mine.